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November 16, 2021

Apparel leading the way on eliminating plastics – sort of

While apparel leads the way in plastic packaging elimination, too little focus is being paid to eradicating single-use packaging altogether says the third annual 'Global Commitment 2021 Progress Report' from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation.

By Hannah Abdulla

The third annual ‘Global Commitment 2021 Progress Report’ from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation has revealed clear progress from brands and retailers on reducing virgin plastics, but more effort is needed to reduce the need for single-use packaging in the first place.

Three years after launching the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, the Foundation and the United Nations Environment Programme published the report today, showing how businesses accounting for 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally, have progressed towards their 2025 targets to create a circular economy for plastics.

According to the data, brands and retailers have collectively reduced their consumption of virgin plastic in packaging for the second year running.

This trajectory will be accelerated by new commitments that are set to see virgin plastic use fall by almost 20% in absolute terms by 2025 compared to 2018. Setting a reduction target has become mandatory for all the Global Commitment’s 63 brand and retail signatories in 2021. When combined with the impact of existing commitments, it is estimated that raising ambitions to this level will avoid 8m tonnes of virgin plastic from being produced each year by 2025.

But the virgin plastic reduction is predominantly driven by switching from virgin plastic to recycled plastic and does not address the total amount of plastic packaging on the market. There is very little evidence of ambitious efforts to reduce the need for single-use packaging in the first place. Less than 2% of signatories’ plastic packaging is reusable, and for more than half of all signatories, this is 0%. Much more focus must urgently go to eliminating single-use packaging.

What the report revealed about the apparel sector in 2021:

  • All signatories in the apparel sector saw a reduction in their use of virgin plastic packaging over the last year with this trend set to continue thanks to new reduction targets.
  • Half the group made progress on increasing their use of post-consumer recycled content with all signatories facing challenges on recyclability.
  • Apparel is leading the way when it comes to action on eliminating plastics. But the focus is on substituting plastic with paper packaging rather than avoiding single-use packaging to begin with.

“We won’t recycle our way out of plastic pollution, eliminating single-use packaging is a vital part of the solution, said- Dame Ellen MacArthur, founder and chair of trustees, Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

“Alarmingly, our report shows little investment in this. We need a much more urgent focus on upstream innovation to rethink how to deliver products without packaging or by using reusable packaging. This doesn’t just allow us to design out waste, it also means we can design out carbon emissions whilst creating new opportunities for business. Shifting just 20% of plastic packaging from single-use to reuse is an opportunity estimated to be worth USD 10 billion.”

The report says voluntary initiatives alone will not be enough and calls for a UN Treaty on plastic pollution to ensure the entire industry and all governments move at the necessary scale and pace.

Inger Andersen, executive director, UNEP, says: “The Global Commitment is showing us that concerted voluntary action by actors across the value chain, including governments, can begin to shift the needle in the fight against plastic pollution. The efforts from all signatories in reporting their progress transparently and with agreed metrics is truly commendable, and a great example to learn from. The frontrunners are also demonstrating that we can decouple the benefits we derive from plastic from the consumption of virgin plastic, and this is groundbreaking. But the action from these frontrunners can be boosted by a comprehensive, inclusive and global approach.”

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